The revered Catalan early-music pioneer Jordi Savall takes a Celtic turn and showcases his gamba virtuosity in a pair of concerts Feb. 27-28.
Call it folk, world or early music: Jordi Savall is the master artist who makes whatever project he takes up seem to illuminate entire eras.
Seattle will host the Barcelona-based musician for a weekend, when Savall comes to offer two separate programs presented by the Early Music Guild. First up is a collaboration with percussionist Frank McGuire for a program centered on Celtic folk traditions at Town Hall (Feb. 27). The next day, Savall gives a solo recital in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall.
For both events, the Catalan musician and scholar will play the instrument with which he is closely identified: the bass viol or viola da gamba (often shortened to “gamba”). Savall has been largely responsible for the revival of interest in the once-obsolete gamba, which evolved separately from today’s violin family of stringed instruments. The gamba, at first glance resembling a cello, usually has six rather than four strings and calls for a different bowing technique.
8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., $20-$35; 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., $65, Seattle (earlymusicguild.org).
Titled “Man and Nature,” Savall’s Town Hall concert with McGuire — who accompanies him on bodhrán (the Irish frame drum) — takes a geographical turn away from the overlapping Mediterranean musical cultures that have been a frequent focus of his projects. Here, Savall explores a repertory he first became intrigued by in the late 1970s on a tour with his ensemble to Kilkenny: the wealth of Celtic music that has been preserved through aural tradition, just as Western Europe’s other folk traditions were being eclipsed by the rapid development of written music (aka “classical music”).
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Savall has transposed what often was fiddle music to the gamba (both the bass and treble versions) — which is precisely how much of this material was enjoyed in more learned circles just around the time the gamba was about to fall into disuse.
“I think the personality of the Celtic nations is related to a certain human quality of people who are very proud of their roots and who like to conserve the connections with their ancestors,” Savall explained in a recent phone conversation from his home in Spain. He includes the Celts of Galician Spain in this complex and compares the travails expressed in Celtic music to the Sephardic diaspora — another fruitful topic of his musical researches and performances.
“What happened when these people were faced with poverty and had to emigrate,” he said, “was that music became the only bridge that could still connect them with home.”
Several years ago, the remarkably prolific Savall released a pair of albums (“The Celtic Viol”) on his Alia Vox label. Much of this material will appear on the “Man and Nature” program, though some of what he plays in Seattle will be from more recent research. The various sets of Irish, Scottish and even American tunes are linked by a thematic thread of music that evokes either landscapes or emotional “humors” — including laments over misfortunes or the loss of loved ones.
“Something I learned many years ago, when I started to play Sephardic repertory, is that music can help people survive,” Savall said. “How is it possible for people who have suffered so much to write such beautiful music?”
He has come to believe that the explanation is simple, a proof of music’s power: “The more you are experiencing a difficult time, the more you need something that helps you to find hope and peace again, and music does this.” That bridge to hope and peace is a theme he plans to explore next month in his “Dialogue of Souls” project for the Easter Festival at Lucerne in Switzerland, where Savall will be artist-in-residence (in honor of his 75th birthday). The dialogue in question is between Jewish, Muslim and Christian musical traditions.
Savall explained that he approaches the Celtic repertory “in the same way I do the (written) Baroque repertory for viola da gamba or Renaissance polyphony.” Although Celtic music is popularly thought of as the soundtrack for good times at the pub, Savall’s program includes pieces by composers like Tobias Hume (1579-1645) and Captain Simon Fraser (1773-1852) — composers, he added, who are “as important as any other composers from this time.”
The fact that only melodies are what tend to be preserved has led to mistaken perceptions of this repertory as simple and even “primitive.” But Savall points to J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites, which were single-handedly revived from obscurity by another great Catalan musician, Pau (also known as Pablo) Casals. “If you play it with the style of other Baroque music, like Handel or Vivaldi, you will find this beautiful quality,” Savall said.
With the right style of improvised ornamentation — honed through years of research and close listening to recordings of authentic Celtic players — Savall has found that “you need nothing more.”